By Chief Mike Ozekhome
ASHANTI EMPIRE (continues)
Last week, we x-rayed the origin and meaning of Ashanti, their contact with Europeans, political organization of the Ashanti, the golden stool and the Ashanti Empire and slavery. From studies, the Ashanti has more historiographies by European, primarily British, authors than any other indigenous culture of Sub-Saharan Africa.
THE BRITISH’S ANNEXATION OF ASHANTI
In December, 1895, the British left Cape Coast with an expeditionary force. It arrived in Kumasi in January 1896, under the command of Robert Baden-Powell. The Asantehene (king) directed the Ashanti not to resist, as he feared a genocide. Shortly thereafter, Governor William Maxwell arrived in Kumasi as well.
Britain annexed the territories of the Ashanti and the Fanti. Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh was deposed and arrested, and he and other Ashanti leaders were sent into exile in the Seychelles. The Asante Union was dissolved. The British formally declared the state of the Ashanti Kingdom and the coastal regions to be the Gold Coast colony. A British Resident was permanently placed in the city of Kumasi, and soon after a British fort was built there.
THE RESISTANCE AND THE “WAR OF THE GOLDEN STOOL”
As a final measure of resistance, the remaining Asante court not exiled to the Seychelles mounted an offensive against the British Residents at the Kumasi Fort. The resistance was led by Asante Queen Yaa Asantewaa, Queen-Mother of Ejisu. From March 28 to late September, 1900, the Asante and British were engaged in what would become known as the “War of the Golden Stool”. In the end, the British were victorious; they exiled Asantewaa and other Asante leaders to the Seychelles to join Asante King Prempeh I.
In January 1902, Britain finally designated the Ashanti Kingdom as a protectorate. The Ashanti Kingdom was restored to self-rule on 31st January, 1935. Asante King Prempeh II was restored in 1957, and the Ashanti Kingdom entered a state union with Ghana at independence from the United Kingdom.
ASHANTI ROYAL PALACE AND THE CHECKS AND BALANCES
The Ashanti government was built upon a sophisticated bureaucracy in Kumasi, with separate ministries to handle the state’s affairs. Ashanti’s Foreign Office based in Kumasi; despite its size, it allowed the state to pursue complex negotiations with foreign powers. The Office was divided into departments to handle relations separately with the British, French, Dutch, and Arabs. Scholars of Ashanti history, such as Larry Yarak and Ivor Wilkes, disagree over the power of this sophisticated bureaucracy in comparison to the Asantahene, but agree that it was a sign of a highly developed government with a complex system of checks and balances.
At the top of Ashanti’s power structure sat the Asantehene, the King of Ashanti. Each Asantahene was enthroned on the sacred Golden Stool, the Sika ‘dwa, an object that came to symbolize the very power of the King. Osei Kwadwo (1764–1777) began the meritocratic system of appointing central officials according to their ability, rather than their birth.
As King, the Asantehene held immense power in Ashanti, but did not enjoy absolute royal rule. He was obliged to share considerable legislative and executive powers with Asante’s sophisticated bureaucracy. But the Asantehene was the only person in Ashanti permitted to invoke the death sentence in cases of crime. During wartime, the King acted as Supreme Commander of the army, although during the 19th century, the fighting was increasingly handled by the Ministry of War in Kumasi. Each member of the confederacy was also obliged to send annual tribute to Kumasi.
The Ashantihene (King of all Ashanti) reigned over all and was King of the division of Kumasi, the nation’s capital, and the Ashanti Kingdom. He was elected in the same manner as all other chiefs. In this hierarchical structure, every chief or King swore fealty to the one above him—from village and subdivision, to division, to the chief of Kumasi, and finally the Ashantihene swore fealty to the State.
The elders circumscribed the power of the Ashantihene, and the chiefs of other divisions considerably checked the power of the King. This in practical effect created a system of checks and balances. As the symbol of the nation, the Ashantihene received significant deference ritually, for the context was religious in that he was a symbol of the people in the flesh: the living, dead or yet to be born. When the king committed an act not approved of by the council of elders or the people, he could possibly be impeached, and demoted to a commoner.
The existence of aristocratic organizations and the council of elders is evidence of an oligarchic tendency in Ashanti political life. Though older men tend to monopolize political power, Ashanti instituted an organization of young men, the nmerante, that tend to democratize and liberalize the political process. The council of elders undertake actions only after consulting a representative of the nmerante. Their views must be taken seriously and added into the conversation.
Below the Asantahene, local power was invested in the obirempon of each locale. The obirempon (literally “big man”) was personally selected by the Asantahene and was generally of loyal, noble lineage, frequently related to the Asantahene. Obirempons had a fair amount of legislative power in their regions, more than the local nobles of Dahomey but less than the regional governors of the Oyo Empire. In addition to handling the region’s administrative and economic matters, the obirempon also acted as the Supreme Judge of the region, presiding over court cases.
The original palace of the Asantehene in Kumasi was burned down by the British in 1875. From European accounts, the edifice was massive and ornately built. In 1819, English traveler and author, Thomas Edward Bowdich described the palace as an immense building of a variety of oblong courts and regular squares with entablatures exuberantly adorned with bold fan and trellis work of Egyptian character. They have a suite of rooms over them, with small windows of wooden lattice, of intricate but regular carved work, and some have frames cased with thin gold. The squares have a large apartment on each side, open in front, with two supporting pillars, which break the view and give it all the appearance of the proscenium or front of the stage of the older Italian theaters. They are lofty and regular, and the cornices of a very bold cane-work in alto-relievo. A drop-curtain of curiously plaited cane is suspended in front, and in each, we observed chairs and stools embossed with gold, and beds of silk, with scattered regalia.
This made Winwood Reade describe his visit to the Ashanti Royal Palace of Kumasi in 1874, as: “We went to the king’s palace, which consists of many courtyards, each surrounded with alcoves and verandahs, and having two gates or doors, so that each yard was a thoroughfare . But the part of the palace fronting the street was a stone house, Moorish in its style with a flat roof and a parapet, and suites of apartments on the first floor.” It was built by Fanti masons many years ago. The rooms upstairs remind me of Wardour Street. Each was a perfect Old Curiosity Shop. Books in many languages, Bohemian glass, clocks, silver plate, old furniture, Persian rugs, Kidderminster carpets, pictures and engravings, numberless chests and coffers. A sword bearing the inscription From Queen Victoria to the King of Ashantee.
MODE OF ELECTION TO THE THRONE
The election of Kings and the Asantehene (King of Kings or emperor) himself followed a pattern. The senior female of the kingly lineage nominated the eligible males. This senior female then consulted the elders, male and female, of that line. The final candidate is then selected. That nomination is then sent to a council of elders, who represent other lineages in the town or district. The Elders then present the nomination to the assembled people.
If the assembled citizens disapprove of the nominee, the process is restarted. Chosen, the new Kings is en-stooled by the Elders, who admonish him with expectations. The chosen Kings swears a solemn oath to the Earth Goddess and to his ancestors to fulfill his duties honorably in which he “sacrifices” himself and his life for the betterment of the Oman/Aman (state(s).
This elected and en-stooled King enjoys a great majestic ceremony to this day with much spectacle and celebration. He reigns with much despotic power, including the ability to make judgments of life and death on his subjects. However, he does not enjoy absolute rule. Upon the stool, the King is sacred, the holy intermediary between people and ancestors. His powers theoretically are more apparent than real. His powers hinge on his attention to the advice and decisions of the Council of Elders. The King can be impeached, de-stooled (de-throned), if the Elders and the people turn against him. He can be reduced to man, subject to derision for his failure. (To be continued).
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” (John W. Gardner).
History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside. (John F. Kennedy).
I am grateful to my numerous readers, locally and globally, for always keeping a date with the Sunday Sermon on the Mount of the Nigerian Project, by humble me, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb., Ph.D, LL.D. Pray, look forward to next week’s illuminating disquisition.